Great Britain: balancing humanitarian action and media relations

Published: 21 December 2007 0:00 CET

With nearly 100 media and humanitarian sector professionals gathered at the London headquarters of the Foreign Press Association, the British Red Cross opened its second annual Dispatches from Disasters symposium with the promise of inspiring passionate dialogue among its panellists and its audience members. The purpose of the day was for experts in their respect fields to discuss and debate the appropriate roles of aid organizations and members of the press during emergencies, particularly in conflict zones.

The day began with a compelling report on current opinions of the British public on issues related to humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, and the treatment of prisoners of war. Reporting the results, Martin Boon from ICM, who conducted the survey, said: “The views on civilians are clearly a very worrying development, but it is reassuring that the survey found the British public feel that there is no need for wars in the modern age.” An increased number of people found the taking of civilian hostages abhorrent, with 85 per cent opposed to this in 2007 compared to 75 per cent in 1999.

Four-fifths of those polled said prisoners of war should not be subjected to torture, even if it was to obtain important military information, and that the authorities should allow prisoners to be visited by an independent organisation.

Panel members Yves Daccord, ICRC communications director, and Hugo Slim, Corporates for Crisis director, debated the survey and its implications for communications with discussion from a floor of journalists and aid agency staff. “I think the survey shows Britons are much more engaged in the debate about warfare than eight years ago and there is a lot more ambiguity about issues raised by war,” Yves Daccord said. Hugo Slim welcomed the survey as a way of “holding a mirror” to society and asking it to debate seriously a very important issue – the question of human violence.

Next, additional panellists introduced both the importance of and challenges with telling the human story through the press during conflicts or following disasters. A freelance journalist shared powerful stories about personal connections made when covering stories of rape and survival in humanitarian camps in Darfur. Aid agencies played an essential role in facilitating access and providing context within which the story unfolded.

Finally, passionate debate was had on the recent practice of aid organizations producing professional written, photographic, and video-based content that is then shared with members of the media. With some major media outlets reducing the numbers of journalists stationed around the world, this was largely agreed to be an important service. At the same time, caution was encouraged, with much focus placed on the practice of clearly attributing content received from outside sources to that source.

“This was an important occasion,” said Jason Smith, who attended the symposium on behalf of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “The dialogue was engaging, but it also served to create stronger bonds and better relationships between members of the media and those in aid organizations who are striving to save lives and meet humanitarian needs in challenging regions of the world.”

In an effort to sustain those relationship with partners in the media the British Red Cross has convened a task force to keep up the debate and find practical solutions to help aid agencies and the media work better together: interested parties can contact us at: